HIV-Infected Women Gain Higher Profile : AIDS: Focus on Magic Johnson helps produce greater interest in UCLA conference. Some participants protest being ignored until now.


The women who pulled together Saturday’s conference on women and the AIDS virus could not have imagined, when they began planning months ago, that they would be handed so powerful a symbol as the seemingly invincible Earvin (Magic) Johnson.

The basketball superstar has disclosed that he contracted the human immunodeficiency virus through heterosexual contact. And while much of the attention over the past few days has been focused on him, the reality is that an infected woman is also part of the equation.

Organizers of the packed conference at UCLA--”Women and HIV: Facing the Epidemic”--said Saturday that they hope Johnson’s disclosure will shake women into realizing the enormous risks they face from an epidemic that hits both genders with equal deadliness.


“Now maybe women will take a look at their own lives and say ‘yes, this can happen to me,’ ” said conference organizer Christine Chandler, director for the East Los Angeles Health Task Force.

Even as they praised Johnson’s courage for coming forward, several woman infected with the AIDS virus said they are resentful that it took his announcement to jolt the nation into acknowledging the extent of the problem.

“We’ve been screaming: ‘We’re here, we’re here by the hundreds of thousands, and it can happen to anybody!’ ” said Linda Luschei, who was infected in 1985 by her husband, who received it through a blood transfusion. “Didn’t our lives matter?”

“We’ve been ignored,” said Mary Lucey, an organizer from ACT UP/LA, explaining the genesis of the women’s conference. “Women are starving for information. It’s been a need for a long time. “

Women are now the fastest-growing group infected with HIV. An estimated 10% to 12% of the nation’s nearly 200,000 AIDS cases are now women--up from about 4% of the nation’s AIDS cases in the mid-1980s, said Dr. Julian Falutz, a visiting physician at UCLA’s AIDS Clinical Research Center.

Falutz, one of the numerous speakers at the daylong forum, said that AIDS has become one of the top five causes of death for women between the ages of 20 and 40, and the leading cause of death among black women in the same age range. He also said that about half the women who contract AIDS do not see themselves as being in any high-risk group.

“Women have to realize that they have to be careful,” Falutz said. “We’ve had blinders on. The problem for women started later and we are just starting to see it.”

The conference was organized by women from more than half a dozen AIDS-related projects and foundations, who were concerned about the lack of AIDS education programs targeting women.

Sessions covered topics ranging from the state of AIDS research to negotiating safer sex. Talks were offered in English and Spanish.

Conference attendance was clearly given a boost by Johnson’s announcement, organizers said. About 300 people had preregistered, but an additional 100 people showed up Saturday morning asking to participate. All were accommodated.

“Once the news broke, everyone’s phone rang off the hook,” Chandler said.

Noting the numerous television cameras at UCLA’s faculty center, Luschei, who works as an administrative assistant on the Westwood campus, said that “if this conference would have been held last week, there would have been a lot less media coverage.”

Among the other speakers who shared their personal experiences with HIV was Sharon Lund, 41, of Hancock Park. She learned she was infected in 1985, after seeing her ex-husband on television, telling Dan Rather that he was dying of AIDS.

Before his death, Lund said, her ex-husband confessed that he was bisexual and had been infected with the virus before they were married.

“There was no reason for me to think that would happen, nothing in his actions to make me suspect,” she said.

Lund is now a full-time educator, speaking almost daily to groups about AIDS. But she said Johnson reached more people in his news conference than she and other activists have reached in all their years of AIDS awareness efforts.

“He made a profound difference that none of us could have made,” she said. “But there’s a lot of anger within me and other people who are infected. We’ve tried for so long to make people aware that it can happen to them.”